Air conditioning: we need to talk about indoor climate change

We are all now used to an international standard of cooling comfort: 22 degrees celsius. bondidwhat/Flickr

For the past few weeks, billboard posters across Doha have promoted the International Climate talks with the < 2°C logo - a reference to the ambition of maintaining average global temperatures less than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels.

Given current CO2-equivalent emissions, and the rapid economic growth in developing countries, many now suggest the 2°C goal is proving increasingly unlikely. Within this far reaching agenda, > 2°C might also prove a critical, and perhaps equally challenging target.

The talks took place in the type of desert urban environment that should sharply focus our attention on the energy intensive methods for cooling buildings which have become common place across the world today.

In Doha, as it is in Australia and much of the world, the “standard” temperature for office spaces has become 22°C. Shopping malls are invariably cooled to lower temperatures in a climate where even small increments > 22°C can make a dramatic difference to the amount of energy required for air-conditioning the country’s buildings.

In less than a generation, air-conditioning has allowed life on the edge of the desert to become far more comfortable. But as cities across the Gulf continue to expand and build rapidly, the cooling of indoor spaces is a major contributor to energy consumption patterns that far exceed per capita levels in most other parts of the world.

In recent summers, with outdoor temperatures reaching 45°C or more, electricity production across the Gulf has barely kept up, with significant outages occurring across a number of GCC states.

Given that some estimate air-conditioning now accounts for around 70% of built environment electricity consumption, it is not surprising that Kuwait, UAE and Qatar have all featured in the top ten of electricity consumers per capita, as ranked by the International Energy Agency.

But in Qatar a number of important initiatives are now addressing the challenge of reducing the carbon footprint of buildings. Much like Soviet style central heating, Qatar Cool now pumps chilled water from a centralised cooling plant via a network of pipes to commercial, industrial and residential buildings. Operating efficiencies and reduced costs are among the proclaimed benefits.

Similarly, the Gulf Organisation for Research & Development has been set up with the remit of developing more environmentally responsible construction and design practices for both Qatar and the Gulf region. In recent years, a number of buildings have also achieved either Gold or Platinum LEED certification, an internationally recognised system developed by the US Green Building Council.

But in what is a distinctly different approach, Doha’s Msheireb project, a $5.5 billion urban development programme, looks beyond the now familiar supply side, high-tech approach to sustainability by revisiting Qatar’s cultural past as a platform for a design principle that uses traditional, low carbon approaches to indoor, outdoor living.

In the sweltering heat of Doha, companies are investigating alternatives to air-conditioning. gabitul/Flickr

Tradition-based climate responsive designs and materials, together with shade catchers, cooling water, vegetation and various fanning devices are among the strategies being deployed to help reduce reliance on energy intensive methods of cooling.

Where this ambitious venture, due for completion sometime around 2016, becomes particularly intriguing though is the way it raises important questions about the norms and standards which have coalesced around bodily comfort. It promises to offer an alternative to the thermal monotony of indoor spaces that is now prevalent in cities across tropical and sub-tropical regions today.

As summer approaches in Australia, such questions once again become prescient. For multiple reasons the topic of air conditioning rarely gets the critical attention it warrants. While earth hours mark the switching off of lights across the office towers of our major cities, little or no public attention is given to the darkened spaces inside that are all too often cooled by inefficient HVAC systems that unnecessarily blanket whole floors with chilled air.

When I walk through Sydney’s retail district, passing by numerous bins for recycling, I wonder why it is acceptable that entrances to shops and malls blast out chilled air, seemingly oblivious about their wasteful use of energy. And why is it that millions of office workers now work in spaces where they have little or no control over their thermal envelope, due to the installation of centrally controlled systems?

Air conditioning is one of those areas where the ability for people to make choices, or to enact a desire to live more sustainably has been severely comprised, if not removed entirely.

Myriad challenges face us if we are to counter current trajectories concerning air conditioning usage, and leaving it to the architectural profession alone will never be enough. A public debate needs to be opened up concerning AC, such that we can reduce our dependency on the air conditioner, reduce/penalise wastage, and create more flexible thermal envelopes that respond to, and build on, local climatic and cultural conditions.

Our norms and expectations about comfort and how these reflect and create daily habits are pivotal here, and altering these is the critical path to change.

But increasing numbers of Australians now spend much of their day working, being entertained and even sleeping in spaces where their sense of comfort has been predetermined by someone else or by some international standard.

If Australia is to address the environmental consequences of air conditioning in a meaningful way, the new brown economy of desert heritage that is emerging in places like Doha might well provide an unlikely source of insight for going green.